In another setback for black and Latino lawmakers, the Supreme Court struck down “majority-minority” congressional districts in Texas and North Carolina on Thursday and said again that electoral boundaries may not be drawn strictly along racial lines.
The 5-4 ruling marks the third time in four years the court’s conservative majority has condemned “racial gerrymandering.” This time, the justices rejected a Clinton administration claim that the federal Voting Rights Act gives states a compelling reason to shape districts along racial lines so as to elect more members of minorities.
“Race-neutral, traditional districting considerations (must) predominate over racial ones,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said for the court. The government should not convey “the message that political identity is, or should be, predominantly racial.”
Civil rights advocates denounced the ruling as a blow to equal representation and said it cast doubt on the fate of many blacks elected since 1990.
Thursday’s decision will “really torch the fundamental right of African Americans, Hispanics and others to be included as participatory citizens in this democracy,” said Elaine Jones of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
But political analysts said most of the 40 members of the Congressional Black Caucus are not at risk. Many serve big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta where black voters are concentrated in large enough numbers to elect minority lawmakers.
In the rural areas of the South, some districts may need to be redrawn. There, black incumbents may find themselves running in districts that have a large percentage of blacks, but less than 50 percent.
Conservative scholars praised the court for insisting the government treat citizens as just voters, not members of a racial or ethnic bloc.
“All Americans should celebrate” the decision, said Abigail Thernstrom, a voting rights expert with the Institute for Justice. It “closes the door on a sorry story of race-based decision-making for purposes of political representation.”
The court’s opinion Thursday also applies to electoral districts for state legislatures, county councils, school boards and judges.
After 1990, the Justice Department pressed states to redraw boundaries in a way that would create districts with black majorities.
As a result, North Carolina elected its first two black representatives of this century among its 12 members of Congress. Texas created majority black districts in Dallas and Houston as well as a majority Latino district in Houston among its 30 districts.
But no sooner did civil rights leaders celebrate those gains than the Supreme Court changed directions. In a surprise ruling three years ago, the five-member conservative majority said racial gerrymandering is generally unconstitutional.
Last year, the court applied that ruling in Georgia and struck down a majority-black district represented by Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney.
Meanwhile, white voters renewed their challenges to the two majority-black districts in North Carolina and the three Texas districts.
By the same 5-4 margin, the court agreed they were unconstitutional.
The dissenters, Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, called the majority’s view “seriously misguided” because it ignores the obvious difference between racial oppression by a majority and racial inclusion of a minority.
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